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Uber drivers sue company alleging coercive Prop 22 advertising

By Megan Rose Dickey

Uber is facing a class-action lawsuit over Proposition 22 that alleges the company is illegally coercing its drivers to support the ballot measure that seeks to keep workers classified as independent contractors. The suit was brought forth by two Uber drivers, Benjamin Valdez and Hector Castellanos, as well as two California nonprofit organizations, Worksafe and Chinese Progressive Association.

“Let’s be absolutely clear,” David Lowe, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “Uber’s threats and constant barrage of Prop 22 propaganda on an app the drivers must use to do their work have one purpose: to coerce the drivers to support Uber’s political battle to strip them of workplace protections.”

In the suit, provided by The New York Times reporter Kate Conger, the plaintiffs argue Uber has encouraged its drivers and delivery workers to support Prop 22 via the company’s driver-scheduling app.

“Uber’s solicitations have the purpose and effect of causing drivers to fear retaliation by Uber if they do not support Uber’s political preference and may induce many drivers to falsely state that they support being deprived of the rights that California law guarantees to statutory ’employees,’ ” the suit states.

This group says it also plans to file legal claims against Uber, Lyft, Instacart and DoorDash with the California Labor Commissioner.

“This is an absurd lawsuit, without merit, filed solely for press attention and without regard for the facts,” Uber spokesperson Matt Kallman said in a statement to TechCrunch. “It can’t distract from the truth: that the vast majority of drivers support Prop 22, and have for months, because they know it will improve their lives and protect the way they prefer to work.”

Prop 22 is the most-funded campaign in California’s history. To date, the Yes on 22 side has put north of $185 million into the initiative. Uber, Lyft and DoorDash are the biggest contributors on the yes side. Meanwhile, the No on 22 campaign has contributed $12,166,063.

Mixtape Podcast: Proposition 22 and the labor divide

By Henry Pickavet

California’s Proposition 22 is the most funded and perhaps one of the most contentious ballot measures in the state’s history.

To date, the Yes on 22 side has put north of $185 million into the initiative. The proposition, funded by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart and Postmates, would ensure workers remain independent contractors. A Prop 22 defeat would reconfigure fully how gig-working companies classify their workers.

On the first episode of Season 3 of Mixtape, we talked to two gig workers, one on each side of the proposition.

Vanessa Bain is an Instacart shopper who is opposed to Proposition 22. Earlier this year, she co-founded Gig Workers Collective, a nonprofit to fight for fair pay and better treatment for gig workers.

She says the future of labor is at stake.

“I would argue the future of our democracy as well. The reality is that it establishes a dangerous precedent to allow companies to write their own labor laws,” Bain continues. “There’s an obvious conflict of interest there … This policy was created to unilaterally benefit companies at the detriment of workers.”

Surprising exactly no one, Doug Mead, an Uber Eats and Postmates driver who lives in Palm Springs and sits squarely in the Yes on 22 camp, feels differently.

“It’s really the government — their intent to remove a person’s control over how they want to be compensated. And that to me just makes no sense whatsoever,” Mead told us. “I should be in control of how I want to be compensated and by who.”

Uber, which was one of the three original companies (along with Lyft and DoorDash) to fund the proposition with $30 million, would see its business model change drastically if the proposition is defeated.

Earlier this month, Megan spoke with Shin-pei Tsay, Uber’s director of policy, cities and transportation, about a number of topics, including Proposition 22. She says she understands the dilemma that drivers grapple with on both sides but ultimately believes that the flexibility drivers currently have is worth protecting.

“But it isn’t perfect,” Tsay says. “We should be supporting workers more than the existing system enables currently, and so this is sort of a middle way of, you know, protecting that flexibility but also offering some benefits.”

The benefits Tsay is referring to is the 120% of minimum wage, 30 cents per engaged mile and healthcare subsidies dependent upon the number of hours worked if Prop 22 passes.

And if it doesn’t pass? Or if the company is forced to devise some magical hybrid classification that benefits all drivers, whether they want to be full employees or independent contractors?

“I think it’d be really challenging in our analysis. Essentially, we would have to start to ensure that there’s coverage, to ensure that there’s the necessary number of drivers to meet demand. There would be this forecasting that needs to happen — we would only be able to offer a certain number of jobs to meet that demand, because people will be working in set amounts of time.”

Tsay says that the matter at hand is to make the situation better rather than trying to “tinker around with two kinds of imperfect definitions.”

“This is something that a lot of companies have to look at. And what we’re trying, what we’re going up against is [that the] current system in place is very binary. And so I think it has to be, again, in partnership with cities, with states, with the federal government — we have to solve this together. This is not something that we just can come up with. And I don’t think the private sector should just come up with it on its own.”

Both Bain and Mead are also thinking about the potential impact the proposition will have on the future of labor outside of your Ubers and Lyfts. They both invoked Starbucks of all places and for very different reasons.

“I understand the other side’s point of view in terms of, there are apparently some drivers out there who don’t feel like they’re making enough money,” Mead told us. “But they’re asking for things, to me, that are just ridiculous. They want to get paid for waiting for a ride? Really? Who gets paid to wait on a job?

“If I’m a barista at Starbucks, there are going to be times when there are no customers in the store. However, I’m also taking that time to present the product that’s being sold to the customers, to set up the displays in the stores, to help clean the store. So I’m still working, even if there’s no customers. Now all of that work has already been done, and there are still no customers. Guess what? The manager is going to send me home. They’re not going to allow me to stay there while there’s nothing to do. So I’m not going to get paid to wait. Why should I get paid to wait now as an independent contractor? That makes zero sense to me.”

Bain uses the same example but in a drastically different way. And one that takes the labor movement head on.

“I have no doubt that … if Prop 22 were to succeed, we would see similar types of maneuvers from companies like Starbucks or Walmart, where we’re gonna end up with piece rate work in all of the service industry. Where we’re going to be paid per transaction that we bring up if we’re a cashier. Or we’re going to be paid per latte that we craft, if we’re a barista.

“If all it takes is putting the hiring process and the bossing into an app on your phone to rewrite labor laws, every company on the planet is going to be doing that. There’s so much more, unfortunately, at stake here than just Uber and Lyft and ride share and grocery delivery and how you’re going to get your DoorDash orders. Literally the future of labor is at stake.”

Proterra, which makes big honkin’ battery systems and electric buses, raises $200 million

By Jonathan Shieber

Proterra, the battery system technology developer for heavy-duty electric vehicles, said it has raised $200 million in a new round of funding.

The new cash comes from Cowen Sustainable Investment Advisors, which led the round, along with money from Soros Fund Management, Generation Investment Management and Broadscale Group.

Cowen took the bulk of the round with $150 million while Soros, Generation and Broadscale forked over another $50 million.

This new capital infusion follows a year’s worth of speculation about a potential public offering for the big honkin battery systems developer. TechCrunch last reported in August 2019 that Proterra had hit a $1 billion valuation according to investors and would be seeking a potential IPO at the time.

The company said the new money would go to support the company’s ongoing research and development efforst into battery and electric drivetrain technologies and business development to increase the company’s footprint in additional commercial vehicle segments.

Proterra’s also looking at charging and energy management technology development to lower fleet management costs associated with operating electric fleets.

To date, Proterra has raised equity and debt totaling at least roughly $1 billion from investors including G2VP, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Constellation Ventures, Mitsui & Co. as well as BMW i Ventures, Edison Energy, the Federal Transportation Administration, General Motors’s venture arm and Tao Capital Partners .

Proterra, mainly makes buses for local, state and federal agencies that can travel 350 miles on a single charge. The Burlingame, Calif. company, which has a number of former Tesla employees in leadership positions, including the company’s former chief executive Ryan Popple, has also diversified its business to provide its power trains to other heavy- and medium-duty commercial electric vehicle manufacturers.

The company is now working with OEMs like Thomas Built Bus, Van Hool, FCCC, BusTech and Optimal-EV to bring 100% battery-electric vehicles powered by its technology to market, the company said in a statement.

“As demand grows for battery-electric vehicles and 100% zero-emission fleets, we are excited to collaborate with CSI as well as our other investors to accelerate the transition to clean, quiet transportation for all and deliver even more Proterra Powered vehicles around the world,” said Jack Allen, Proterra’s current chairman and chief executive.

BofA Securities acted as sole placement agent on this transaction.

Plenty has raised over $500 million to grow fruits and veggies indoors

By Jonathan Shieber

Plenty‌ ‌Unlimited‌ has raised $140 million in new funding to build more vertical farms around the U.S.

The new funding, which brings the company’s total cash haul to an abundant $500 million, was led by existing investor SoftBank Vision Fund and included the berry farming giant Driscoll’s. It’s a move that will give Driscoll’s exposure to Plenty’s technology for growing and harvesting fruits and vegetables indoors.

The funding comes as Plenty has inked agreements with both its new berry-interested investor and the Albertsons grocery chain. The company also announced plans to build a new farm in Compton, California.

The financing provides plenty of cash for a company that’s seeing a cornucopia of competition in the tech-enabled cultivated crop market raising a plethora of private and public capital.

In the past month, AppHarvest has agreed to be taken public by a special purpose acquisition company in a deal that would value that greenhouse tomato-grower at a little under $1 billion. And another leafy green grower, Revol Greens, has raised $68 million for its own greenhouse-based bid to be part of the new green revolution.

Meanwhile, Plenty’s more direct competitor, Bowery Farming, is expanding its retail footprint to 650 stores, even as Plenty touts its deal with Albertsons to provide greens to 431 stores in California.

Discoll’s seemed convinced by Plenty’s technology, although the terms of the agreement with the company weren’t disclosed.

“We looked at other vertical farms, and Plenty’s technology was one of the most compelling systems we’d seen for growing berries,” said J. Miles Reiter, Driscoll’s chairman and CEO, in a statement. “We got to know Plenty while working on a joint development agreement to grow strawberries. We were so impressed with their technology, we decided to invest.”

Google Analytics update uses machine learning to surface more critical customer data

By Ron Miller

If you ever doubted the hunger brands have for more and better information about consumers, you only need to look at Twilio buying customer data startup Segment this week for $3.2 billion. Google sees this the same as everyone else, and today it introduced updates to Google Analytics to help companies understand their customers better (especially in conjunction with related Google tools).

Vidhya Srinivasan, vice president of measurement, analytics and buying platforms at Google, wrote in a company blog post introducing the new features that the company sees this changing customer-brand dynamic due to COVID, and it wants to assist by adding new features that help marketers achieve their goals, whatever those may be.

One way to achieve this is by infusing Analytics with machine learning to help highlight data automatically that’s important to marketers using the platform. “[Google Analytics] has machine learning at its core to automatically surface helpful insights and gives you a complete understanding of your customers across devices and platforms,” Srinivasan wrote in the blog post.

The idea behind the update is to give marketers access to more information they care about most by using that machine learning to surface data like which groups of customers are most likely to buy and which are most likely to churn, the very types of information marketing (and sales) teams need to try make proactive moves to keep customers from leaving or conversely turning those ready to buy into sales.

Google_Analytics_predictive_metric predict churn and most likely to convert to sales.

Image Credits: Google

If it works as described, it can give marketers a way to measure their performance with each customer or group of customers across their entire lifecycle, which is especially important during COVID when customer needs are constantly changing.

Of course, this being a Google product it’s designed to play nicely with Google Ads, YouTube and other tools like Gmail and Google Search, along with non-Google channels. As Srinivasan wrote:

The new approach also makes it possible to address longtime advertiser requests. Because the new Analytics can measure app and web interactions together, it can include conversions from YouTube engaged views that occur in-app and on the web in reports. Seeing conversions from YouTube video views alongside conversions from Google and non-Google paid channels, and organic channels like Google Search, social, and email, helps you understand the combined impact of all your marketing efforts.

The company is also trying to futureproof analytics with an eye toward stricter privacy laws like GDPR in Europe or CCPA in California by using modeling to fill in gaps in information when you can’t use cookies or other tracking software.

All of this is designed to help marketers, caught in trying times with a shifting regulatory landscape, to better understand customer needs and deliver them what they want when they want it — when they’re just trying to keep the customers satisfied.

Harley-Davidson should keep making e-motorcycles

By Jake Bright

Harley-Davidson should continue to make electric motorcycles. That’s my big takeaway after taking home the company’s LiveWire for three weeks.

I’d ridden it on a closed course in 2019, but that wasn’t enough to absorb the finer qualities of the 105 horsepower machine. After nearly a month and a thousand miles on the LiveWire, I’d venture to say it could be the most innovative motorcycle Harley-Davidson has ever produced.

That doesn’t mean perfect (particularly on the pricing). But with declining sales and the aging of the baby boomers — Harley’s primary market for chrome and steel gassers — the company needed to take a fresh turn.

HD’s first EV

Harley-Davidson did that with the LiveWire, which began as a concept and developed into the manufacturer’s first production EV, released in late 2019. The voltage-powered two-wheeler is meant to complement, not replace, HD’s premium internal-combustion cruisers.

Founded in Milwaukee in 1903, Harley-Davidson opened a Silicon Valley office in 2018 with plans to add a future line-up of electric vehicles — from motorcycles to bicycles to scooters. The $29,799 LiveWire was first, though waning earnings and the COVID-19-induced recession have put HD’s electric plans in question.

On key specs, the Livewire will do 0-60 mph in 3 seconds, top 110 mph and charge to 80% in 40 minutes on a DC Fast Charger. The motorcycle’s 15.5 kWh battery and magnet motor produce 86 ft-lbs of torque.

Image Credits: Harley-Davidson

The 548-pound LiveWire has an advertised city range of 146 miles (and 95 for combined city/highway riding).The electric Harley is also an IoT and app-compatible vehicle, with preset riding modes — that offer different combos of power, torque and regen braking — and the ability to create custom modes.

Harley-Davidson added some premium features to the LiveWire, such as key fob operation, an anti-theft control system and a heartbeat-like vibration on the motorcycle.

That’s useful to remind the rider that the LiveWire — which goes silent at a stop — is still in run mode. In motion, the bike is basically quiet, though Harley-Davidson — famous for its internal combustion rumble — created a signature electric sound generated from the vehicle’s mechanical movements. It’s a barely audible buzz that gives the motorcycle a distinct voice as an electric Harley.

The ride

As an e-motorcycle, the LiveWire is remarkably balanced for a two-wheeler that has so much mass concentrated in one place: the battery.

At over 500 pounds, it isn’t exactly heavy by Harley cruiser standards, but the LiveWire is hefty for a naked sport bike. You definitely feel that weight pushing the EV around the garage, but fortunately — with some clever frame engineering — it fades away once the LiveWire gets rolling.

When I tested the LiveWire on a track in 2019, I noted that it brought everything that was becoming the e-motorcycle experience: huge torque and lightning-like acceleration with little noise beyond the wind moving around you.

More time and riding conditions with the LiveWire led to a stronger appreciation. I took it down the Hudson River Valley into Manhattan, up to three digits on I-95, and on the twisty backroads outside of Greenwich. The LiveWire looks and performs the part of a high-performance e-motorcycle, and in many ways, offers a more exciting ride than anything piston-powered.

Image Credits: Jake Bright

The biggest rush on a LiveWire, compared to ICE peers, is the torque and acceleration. With fewer mechanical moving parts than gas bikes — and no clutch or shifting — the power delivery is stronger and more constant than internal combustion machines. You simply twist and go.

Like other high-performance e-motorcycles, the LiveWire’s regenerative braking — or the extent to which the motor recharges the battery and slows the rear wheel coming off throttle — also enhances performance. Regen braking can be adjusted manually or by riding mode on the electric HD.

It takes some skill, but the end result is the ability to fly through corners in a smoother manner than a gas motorcycle — with little to no mechanical braking — by simply rolling off and on the throttle. This is complemented by the motorcycle’s lateral handling. In turns, the LiveWire holds a line as precisely as a Tron light-cycle (at least that’s how it felt conceptually).

This all translates into a riding experience of uninterrupted forward movement, without any racket and rattling. That the motorcycle also looks great— with lines and styling that hit the marks for an EV and a Harley — adds even more.

The market

With the LiveWire debut, Harley-Davidson became the first of the big gas manufacturers to offer a street-legal e-motorcycle for sale in the U.S.

The move is something of a necessity for the company, which like most of the motorcycle industry in the U.S., has been bleeding revenue and younger buyers for years.

While HD got the jump on traditional motorcycle manufacturers, such as Honda and Kawasaki, it’s definitely not alone in the two-wheeled electric space.

Harley-Davidson entered the EV arena with competition from several e-moto startups that are attempting to convert gas riders to electric and attract a younger generation to motorcycling.

One of the leaders is California startup Zero Motorcycles, with 200 dealers worldwide. Italy’s Energica is expanding distribution of its high-performance e-motos in the U.S.

And Canadian startup Damon Motors debuted its 200 mph, $24,000 Hypersport this year, which offers proprietary safety and ergonomics tech for adjustable riding positions and blind-spot detection.

Of course, it’s not evident there’s enough demand out there to buy up all these new models, particularly given the COVID-19-induced global recession.

On the LiveWire’s market success (or failure), it’s tough to assess since HD’s reporting doesn’t include LiveWire-specific sales data. One thing I (and others) have been critical of is the motorcycle’s $29,000 price. At just several thousand dollars less than a Tesla Model 3, it’s just too high — even for a premium motorcycle. But price aside, and that’s a big aside, I’d still argue the company succeeded with the LiveWire in a couple major ways. Harley-Davidson created an exciting halo motorcycle that established it as a legitimate e-motorcycle maker — in a distinctly Harley-Davidson form — while capturing public interest for its EV program.

What’s next?

For a company to reap the benefits of a successful halo launch, it needs to create a more accessible sequel. In July, Harley-Davidson’s newly appointed CEO, Jochen Zeitz, announced a five-year plan — dubbed The Rewire — to adjust to declining sales and lead the company into the future. The strategy includes a massive restructuring and holding on (or even cancelling) some previously announced programs, such Harley’s gas powered Bronx model.

On whether the LiveWire — and producing new EVs — remain in Harley-Davidson’s future, Zeitz hasn’t been specific in confirming that in recent statements or investor calls.

Image Credits: Jake Bright

After some intimate time getting to know HD’s debut electric motorcycle, and assessing the market, my vote is for the iconic American company to continue its EV program and give us more. Offer a follow-on that makes the rush and on-demand capabilities of the halo Livewire available to the mases.

I could envision the company’s next EV product release including a scooter offering — registering Harley in the urban mobility space — and a more affordable e-motorcycle with broad market appeal.

What could that look like? Something priced around $10,000, lighter and more realistic for beginner riders than the 549-pound LiveWire; cloud and app connected with at least 100 miles of range and a charge time of 30 to 40 minutes. A tracker-styled EV channeling Harley’s flat-track racers — with some off-road capability — could be a winner.

Image Credits: Jake Bright

Getting it all right on specs, style and price-point will be even more critical for HD in a COVID-19 economic environment, where spending appetites for motorcycles will be more conservative for the foreseeable future.

But continuing the commitment to production EV’s is still Harley-Davidson’s best bet to reach a younger market and remain relevant in the 21st century mobility world. HD’s Rewire should definitely include more LiveWire.

Judge denies Epic’s request to force Apple to bring Fortnite back to App Store

By Lucas Matney

The California judge in the legal skirmish between Epic Games and Apple has denied Epic’s request that Apple be forced to reinstate Fortnite in the App Store, but did affirm that Apple can not take action against the Epic Games developer accounts used to bring Unreal Engine developers access to Apple devices.

The court’s decision re-affirmed their proclamation from late August in a court hearing where Epic Games’ lawyers sought to obtain a temporary restraining order after Apple informed the Fortnite developer that they would be kicking the company off the App Store and terminating all of their company accounts.

The judge noted that “[p]reliminary injunctive relief is an extraordinary measure rarely granted,” and detailed that they were granting in part and denying in part Epic’s request, noting that “Epic Games bears the burden in asking for such extraordinary relief.”

From the filing:

Epic Games has strong arguments regarding Apple’s exclusive distribution through the iOS App Store, and the in-app purchase (“IAP”) system through which Apple takes 30% of certain IAP payments. However, given the limited record, Epic Games has not sufficiently addressed Apple’s counter arguments. The equities, addressed in the temporary restraining order, remain the same.

This confirms that Fortnite will not return to the App Store before the trial begins, a court filing this week signaled that the two companies will go to trial on May 3, 2021.

Both sides aimed to take their win and ignore their loss in the mixed decision.

“Epic Games is grateful that Apple will continue to be barred from retaliating against Unreal Engine and our game development customers as the litigation continues. We will continue to develop for iOS and Mac under the court’s protection, and we will pursue all avenues to end Apple’s anti-competitive behavior,” an Epic Games spokesperson said in a statement.

“Our customers depend on the App Store being a safe and trusted place where all developers follow the same set of rules,” and Apples spokesperson told TechCrunch in an emailed statement. “We’re grateful the court recognized that Epic’s actions were not in the best interests of its own customers and that any problems they may have encountered were of their own making when they breached their agreement. For twelve years, the App Store has been an economic miracle, creating transformative business opportunities for developers large and small. We look forward to sharing this legacy of innovation and dynamism with the court next year.”

Daily Crunch: Waymo opens up driverless ride-hailing

By Anthony Ha

Alphabet’s self-driving technology company hits a major milestone, Apple TV+ extends its free subscription period and Affirm files to go public. This is your Daily Crunch for October 8, 2020.

The big story: Waymo opens up driverless ride-hailing

Waymo hit a major milestone today: It’s offering fully driverless rides to (some) members of the public.

While the Alphabet-owned company has offered plenty of self-driving rides before, they usually came with a human in the driver’s seat for safety. Members of the early rider program who’d signed nondisclosure agreements were able to try out fully driverless rides — but again, they had to sign NDAs first.

Today, the company said members of its more open Waymo One program in Phoenix will be able to go fully driverless, and to take friends and family with them. And over the next few weeks, the program will open up to even more passengers.

The tech giants

Apple is extending some Apple TV+ subs through February 2021 for free — Apple gave away a free year of Apple TV+ to new device purchasers last year; now it’s bumping those subs out to February.

Amazon debuts its first fully electric delivery vehicle, created in partnership with Rivian — The van’s unique features include sensor-based highway driving and traffic assist features.

IBM plans to spin off infrastructure services as a separate $19B business — The company said this will allow it to focus on newer opportunities in hybrid cloud applications and artificial intelligence.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Instacart raises $200M more at a $17.7B valuation — It’s not hard to trace a connection between COVID-19 and Instacart’s business results.

Affirm files confidentially to go public — The news comes after the impending debut was reported in July.

Delivery startup goPuff raises $380M at a $3.9B valuation — GoPuff delivers products like over-the-counter medicine, baby food and alcohol (basically, the stuff you’d buy at a convenience store) in 30 minutes or less.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Investors, founders report hot market for API startups — Startups that deliver their service via an API are having a moment.

Tech’s role in the COVID-19 response: Assist, don’t reinvent — Speakers at Disrupt explained how technology companies have taken a backseat to frontline workers, rather than attempting to “solve” the issues on their own.

These 3 factors are holding back podcast monetization — Fundamental fixes could unleash the channel’s revenue potential.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

General Motors finally gets serious about in-car tech, taps Unreal Engine for next-gen interface — Matt Burns writes that GM’s current crop of in-car user interfaces is among the worst on the market.

Consumers spent a record $28B in apps in Q3, aided by pandemic — According to a new report from App Annie, consumers in the third quarter downloaded 33 billion new apps globally.

US Space Force is getting an immersive space sim training tool built in part by the VFX studio behind ‘The Mandalorian’ — The U.S. Space Force obviously won’t be able to train most of their service people in actual space, so the new arm of America’s defense forces has tasked Slingshot Aerospace to create a VR space sim.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Waymo starts to open driverless ride-hailing service to the public

By Kirsten Korosec

Waymo, the Google self-driving-project-turned-Alphabet unit, is beginning to open up its driverless ride-hailing service to the public.

The company said that starting today, members of its Waymo One service will be able to take family and friends along on their fully driverless rides in the Phoenix area. Existing Waymo One members will have the first access to the driverless rides — terminology that means no human behind the wheel. However, the company said that in the next several weeks more people will be welcomed directly into the service through its app, which is available on Google Play and the App Store.

Waymo said that 100% of its rides will be fully driverless — which it has deemed its “rider only” mode. That 100% claim requires a bit of unpacking. The public shouldn’t expect hundreds of Waymo-branded Chrysler Pacifica minivans — no human behind the wheel — to suddenly inundate the entire 600-plus square miles of the greater Phoenix area.

Waymo has abut 600 vehicles in its fleet. About 300 to 400 of those are in the Phoenix area. Waymo wouldn’t share exact numbers of how many of these vehicles would be dedicated to driverless rides. However, Waymo CEO John Krafcik explained to TechCrunch in a recent interview that there will be various modes operating in the Phoenix area. Some of these will be “rider only,” while other vehicles will still have trained safety operators behind the wheel. Some of the fleet will also be used for testing.

“We’re just ready from every standpoint,” Krafcik told TechCrunch. “And how do we know we’re ready? We’ve had our wonderful group of early riders, who’ve helped us hone the service, obviously not from a safety standpoint because we’ve had the confidence on the safety side for some time, but rather more for the fit of the product itself.” He added that these early riders helped the company determine if the product was “delivering satisfaction and delight for them.”

Later this year, Waymo will relaunch rides with a trained vehicle operator to add capacity and allow us to serve a larger geographical area. Krafcik said the company is in the process of adding in-vehicle barriers between the front row and rear passenger cabin for in-vehicle hygiene and safety.

Waymo operates in about a 100-square-mile area. The driverless or “rider only” service area that will be offered to Waymo One members is about 50 square miles, Krafcik said.

Despite the various caveats, this is still a milestone — one of many the company has achieved in the past decade. The past five years has been particularly packed, starting with Steve Mahan, who is legally blind, taking the “first: driverless ride in the company’s Firefly prototype on Austin’s city streets in 2015. More than a dozen journalists experienced driverless rides in 2017 on a closed course at Waymo’s testing facility in Castle. Then last November, TechCrunch took one of the first driverless rides in a Waymo Pacifica minivan along the public streets of a Phoenix suburb.

waymo-driverless app

The company scaled its commercial product even as these demos and testing continued. In 2017, Waymo launched its early rider program, which let vetted members of the public, who had signed non-disclosure agreements, hail its self-driving cars in the Phoenix area. Those autonomous vehicles all had human safety operators behind the wheel.

Waymo then launched Waymo One, a self-driving ride-hailing service aimed for public use, no NDA strings attached. But again, those rides all had human safety operators in the driver’s seat, ready to take over if needed. Waymo slowly moved its early rider program members into the more open Waymo One service. It also started experimenting with charging for rides and expanded its footprint — or geofenced service area. Today, the company charges for rides across all of its programs (early rider and Waymo One) in the Phoenix area. The Waymo One service (with human safety operators) is about 100 square miles in Phoenix suburbs like Chandler.

The first meaningful signs that Waymo was ready to put people in vehicles without human safety operators popped up last fall when members of its early rider program received an email indicating that driverless rides would soon become available.

And they did. These driverless rides were limited and free. And importantly, still fell under the early rider program, which had that extra NDA protection. Waymo slowly scaled until about 5 to 10% of its total rides in 2020 were fully driverless for its exclusive group of early riders under NDA. Then COVID-19 hit and the service was halted. The company has continued testing with its safety drivers in Arizona and California. That has raised some concerns among those workers about the dual issue of catching COVID and dealing with air quality issues caused by wildfires in California.

Waymo said it has added new safety protocols due to COVID-19, including requiring users to wear masks, having hand sanitizer in all vehicles and conducting what Krafcik described as a cabin flush — essentially a four to five-time increase in air volume sent through the vehicle — after every ride.

Krafcik also said Waymo will soon add the all-electric Jaguar I-Pace to the mix, first testing them on public roads and then adding the vehicles to the early rider program.

Updated: The company charges for all rides now in Phoenix. 

Zero’s SR/S doubles as an EV sport motorcycle and sport-tourer

By Jake Bright

Zero’s 2020 SR/S could be your EV sport bike or sport-tourer. Unveiled earlier this year, the all electric motorcycle brings performance attributes of both classes — with a unique list of pros and cons compared to gas-powered peers.

The SR/S also adds to the business mission of its manufacturer, Zero. The California based EV company has raised $137 million (according to Crunchbase) towards its aim take electric motorcycles mass-market.

SR/F to SR/S

TechCrunch took home Zero’s new SR/S for an extended test. That follows a good amount of saddle time last year in the motorcycle’s predecessor, the 2019 SR/F naked bike. At first glance, it appears Zero simply slapped a fairing on the SR/F to create the SR/S, but there’s more to it than that.

The two motorcycles are identical in many ways. They share the same trellis frame, wheels/tires, drive-train, battery, motor, charging and operating system. But in addition to the fairing, there are some small changes that yielded a distinctly better riding experience. I’ll get to that.

First, on the common specs, like the SR/F the SR/S has roughly the same top-speed of 124 mph, the same 140 ft-lbs of torque and a charge time of 60 minutes to 95%, with the six kilowatt premium charger option (a $2K upgrade).

Both the Zeros are IoT motorcycles. You can manage overall performance — including engine output and handling characteristics — through digital riding modes and from a mobile app. Each EV also has Bosch’s stability control system, which includes cornering ABS and traction control.

The major differences on the SR/S over the SR/F are the addition of the full-fairing, a more relaxed (upright) riding position (through a lower foot peg and higher bar positioning) and a 13% improvement in highway range, from improved aerodynamics (according to Zero). The Scotts Valley company also customized the suspension presets on the SR/S for the fairing and altered ride position, a company spokesperson told TechCrunch. The fairing brings around 20 pounds more weight to to the SR/S over the 485-pound SR/F.

On price, the base version of the SR/S is $19,995 — a dash over the SR/F’s $19,495 — and a premium SR/S (with a higher charging capacity) comes in at $21,995.

Living with the SR/S

While I loved the overall look and performance of Zero’s SR/F, I found the SR/S to be an even better e-motorcycle — at least for my preferences. The SR/S’s upgraded riding position increases leverage and maneuverability on the motorcycle, which translated into more comfortable long rides and better handling on twisty roads.

Similar to the SR/F, and characteristic of high-performance e-motorcycles, Zero’s SR/S brings mongo torque and lightning acceleration, sans noise or fumes. With fewer mechanical moving parts than a gas bike — and no clutch or shifting — the e-moto’s power delivery is stronger and more constant than internal combustion machines. You simply twist and go.

It’s also possible to adjust and adapt to the motorcycle’s regenerative qualities to change the way you tackle curvy rides. Regen braking not only adds power back to the battery, but also lets you dial in how much the SR/S’ motor slows down when closing the throttle. It takes some finesse, but the net result is the ability to fly through corners in a smoother manner than a gas motorcycle — with little to no mechanical braking — by simply rolling off and on the throttle.

Image Credits: Jake Bright

On range, it’s likely possible to get Zero’s advertised 161 max miles on the SR/S by keeping it in the Eco mode — with lowest power output and highest regen braking — and sticking to stop and go city riding. That’d be pretty boring, however and I didn’t test it. Over several months with the SR/S, I was able to average around a 100 miles of range by using a combo of riding modes — Eco for errands and Sport for speeding on country roads. Charge times using a 6 kW Level 2 charger came out to around an hour to an hour and twenty minutes, depending on how low the state of charge was.

On SR/S specific gripes and likes, there were a couple things on the negative side. Similar to the SR/F, I found the stopping power of the motorcycle’s four-piston, twin calipers up front to be strong, but the rear J-Juan brake soft. Zero could have also offered some different color schemes, beyond gray or dark blue, to better accentuate the motorcycle’s smooth lines. One of the company’s leading dealers, Hollywood Electrics, appears to agree on that one and started offering custom versions of the SR/S in bright white or red.

My biggest likes about the SR/S were the improved performance, versatility, and rider experience Zero was able to deliver with the fairing, peg/bar mods, and suspension setup. I did all kinds of riding on the motorcycle in and around New York and Connecticut: from commuting and backroad blasting to highway jaunts. The SR/S take the upsides of riding electric motorcycles to another level. The fairing eliminates a great deal of wind resistance. On the highway, the SR/S cruises effortlessly in the 80 – 90 mph range —  with no engine noise — giving a sensation of surfing quietly on air, vs. forcing your way through it.

The bike has the power and performance to be a weekend sport bike and a comfortable enough riding position to add some rear bags and double as an EV sport-tourer. With the e-motorcycle benefits, however, you still have to accept some compromise and inconvenience, namely around range and charging. Most gas sport and sport-touring motorcycles will get over 200 miles on a tank and top up in minutes. With the SR/S, you’d need to accept about half that range, searching for charging stations and finding something to do for about an hour when you do. So yes, electric motorcycles do have some superior performance attributes, but they still bring trade-offs to internal combustion two-wheelers.

A boost for Zero

Zero’s latest entries — the SR/F and the SR/S — come at a time when startups are pushing the motorcycle industry toward electric.

In 2020, Harley-Davidson became the first of the big gas manufacturers to offer a street-legal e-motorcycle for sale in the U.S., the $29,000 LiveWire. Italy’s Energica has been expanding distribution of its high-performance e-motos in the U.S. And Canadian startup Damon Motors debuted its 200 mph, $24,000 Hypersport this year, which offers proprietary safety and ergonomics tech for adjustable riding positions and blind-spot detection.

Image Credits: Jake Bright

It’s not evident there’s enough demand out there to buy up all these new models, particularly given the Covid-19 induced global recession. But however competition between e-motorcycle sellers plays out, Zero has given itself an advantage with the SR/S. By upgrading an existing platform, the California based company was able to enter two new classes with one model, to offer an electric sport-bike and an electric sport-tourer to the masses.

Kroger, one of America’s largest grocery chains, experiments with ghost kitchens and delivery in the Midwest

By Jonathan Shieber

The Kroger Co., one of the biggest grocery chains in the Midwest is dipping its toe into on-demand delivery and the ghost kitchen craze through a partnership with an Indianapolis-based startup, ClusterTruck.

Supermarkets would seem to be logical places to site the kinds of ghost kitchens that have caught investor’s eye over the past few years and it wouldn’t be the first time that business models from startup companies bubbled up into large national brands, who are better positioned to capitalize on the trends.

Think about the various meal prep kits that launched and raised millions of dollars before being taken over or copied by big retail groceries. Meal prep kits are everywhere in the grocery store these days and supermarkets have had hot food counters dating back decades at least.

Through the partnership with ClusterTruck, Kroger is expanding on a pilot conducted last year, where the grocer set aside 1,000 square feet at participating stores in Carmel and Indianapolis, Indiana and Columbus, Ohio for ClusterTruck staff to cook meals for delivery and in-store pickup.

“Kroger remains focused on providing our customers with fresh food and experiences enabled by industry-leading insights and transformative technology,” said Dan De La  Rosa, Kroger’s group vice president of fresh merchandising, in a statement. “The new on-premise  kitchen, in partnership with ClusterTruck, is an innovation that streamlines ordering,  preparation and delivery, supporting Kroger as we meet the sustained customer demand for quick, fresh restaurant-quality meals, especially as we navigate an unprecedented health crisis that has affected every aspect of our lives, including  mealtime.” 

The idea, according to Kroger, is to continue to capitalize on the shift to digital deliveries and sales. In the second quarter of the year, the company said it saw over 100% growth in its digital sales.

Ghost kitchens (or cloud kitchens) caught investors’ attention when Uber co-founder and former chief executive Travis Kalanick raised over a hundred million dollars to make the idea his next big bet after Uber. Interest and investment into the model, which sees companies offer food prep and storage spaces for would-be food truck and delivery entrepreneurs, soared. Kalanick’s CloudKitchens have gone on to raise several hundreds of millions of dollars and spawned competitors like the Pasadena, Calif.-based company Kitchen United.

Not everyone is convinced that the dark kitchen or cloud kitchen trend is all that it’s made out to be. My colleagues at TechCrunch have taken the idea to task for its reliance on some WeWork -ian assumptions around margins.

But if anything could make the model go, it’s the combination of existing infrastructure and digital efficiencies. That’s likely what Kroger is hoping to leverage.

It’s an interesting experiment at least and one worth tracking.

Here’s your first look at Boom Supersonic’s faster-than-sound XB-1 demonstrator aircraft

By Darrell Etherington

Boom Supersonic is closer than ever to its goal of introducing supersonic commercial aviation back to the global stage — the Colorado-based startup unveiled the final design of its XB-1 demonstrator aircraft today. This is a fully functional prototype airplane, which will help the company test out the flight capabilities and systems that will eventually make its Overture supersonic commercial passenger aircraft a reality.

XB-1 is a scaled-down version of what Overture will be, lacking the passenger cabin that will offer business-class style amenities to commercial passengers. It does have a cockpit for the test pilots who will help Boom put its design through its paces beginning in 2021. It measures 71-feet long, and its propulsion is provided by three GE-made J85-15 engines that together provide 12,000 lbs of thrust. There are standard cockpit windows, but because of the extreme angle of the nose required for aerodynamics, there’s also an HD video camera and cockpit display to provide pilots with a virtual view out the front of the plane for maximum visibility.

[gallery ids="2057516,2057517,2057518,2057519,2057520,2057521,2057522,2057523,2057524,2057525,2057526"]

The frame of the XB-1 is made of carbon-composite, which is designed for light weight while also offering very high tensile strength and rigidity, as well as an ability to withstand the high temperatures generated by traveling at supersonic speeds (even in the relatively friction-free environs of higher altitudes). Boom also kept pilot comfort in mind when creating the XB-1, optimizing for economics via user testing spanning “hundreds of hours.”

Boom plans to test XB-1 at Mojave Air and Space Port, located in Mojave, California. As mentioned, the goal now is to get that underway next year — but Boom will begin on its ground testing program immediately. Meanwhile, Boom will continue developing Overture simultaneously, working on wind tunnel tests and other elements of aircraft validation in order to help move toward the target of getting that commercial jet in the air for 2025.

Later today, Boom is hosting a virtual rollout event at its headquarters, with a Q&A to be hosted by Boom founder and CEO Blake Scholl. You can check that out live at Boom’s site starting at 11 AM MT (1 PM ET/10 AM PT).

Healthcare giant UHS hit by ransomware attack, sources say

By Zack Whittaker

Universal Health Services, one of the largest healthcare providers in the U.S., has been hit by a ransomware attack.

The attack hit UHS systems early on Sunday morning, according to two people with direct knowledge of the incident, locking computers and phone systems at several UHS facilities across the country, including in California and Florida.

One of the people said the computer screens changed with text that referenced the “shadow universe,” consistent with the Ryuk ransomware. “Everyone was told to turn off all the computers and not to turn them on again,” the person said. “We were told it will be days before the computers are up again.”

It’s not immediately known what impact the ransomware attack is having on patient care.

An executive who oversees cybersecurity at another U.S. hospital system, who asked not to be named as they were not authorized to speak to the press, told TechCrunch that patient medical data is “likely safe” as UHS relies on Cerner, a healthcare technology company, to handle its patients’ electronic health records.

UHS has 400 hospitals and healthcare facilities in the U.S. and the U.K., and serves millions of patients each year.

A spokesperson for UHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Ryuk ransomware is linked to a Russian cybercrime group, known as Wizard Spider, according to security firm Crowdstrike. Ryuk’s operators are known to go “big game hunting” and have previously targeted large organizations, including shipping giant Pitney Bowes and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Some ransomware operators said earlier this year that they would not attack health organizations and hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Ryuk’s operators did not.

Last week, police in Germany launched a homicide investigation after a woman died after she was redirected to another hospital following a ransomware attack.


Send tips securely over Signal and WhatsApp to +1 646-755-8849 or send an encrypted email to: zack.whittaker@protonmail.com

Elon Musk says Tesla will ‘one day’ produce ‘super efficient home HVAC’ with HEPA filtering

By Darrell Etherington

Elon Musk has previously touted the “Bioweapon Defense Mode” boasted by Tesla’s vehicles, which are designed to provide excellent air quality inside the car even in the face of disastrous conditions without, thanks in part to high-efficiency HEPA air filtration. Now, Musk has said on Twitter that he hopes to one day provide similar air filtration along with home HVAC systems.

Tesla, while primarily an automaker, is also already in the business of home energy and power generation, thanks to its acquisition of SolarCity, its current production of solar roofing products and its business building Tesla batteries for storage of power generated from green sources at home. While it hasn’t yet seemed to make any moves to enter into any other parts of home building or infrastructure, HVAC systems actually would be a logical extension of its business, since they represent a significant part of the overall energy consumption of a home, depending on its heating and cooling sources.

We will make super efficient home hvac with hepa filters one day

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 11, 2020

Boosting home HVAC efficiency would have the added benefit of making Tesla’s other home energy products more appealing to consumers, since it would presumably help make it easier to achieve true off-grid (or near off-grid) self-sufficiency.

As for the company’s HEPA filtration, despite the jokey name, Tesla actually takes Bioweapon Defense Mode very seriously. In a blog post in 2016, it detailed what went into the system’s design, along with testing data to back up its claims of a HEPA filter that’s “ten times more efficient than standard automotive filters.” While Tesla doesn’t cited wildfires in that post, it does list “California freeways during rush hour, smelly marshes, cow pastures in the Central Valley of California, and major cities in China” in terms of challenges it wanted it to be able to handle.

Many experts are predicting that the wildfires we’re currently seeing devastating large portions of the west coast of the U.S. will only get worse as environmental conditions continue to suffer the impact of climate change. Given that, and given Tesla’s larger business goals of offering a range of products that neutralize or reduce the ecological impact of its customers, more efficient and effective home HVAC products don’t seem that far outside its operational expertise.

Tarform unveils Luna e-moto for folks who may not like motorcycles

By Jake Bright

Brooklyn-based EV startup Tarform unveiled its Luna electric motorcycle in New York last week—a model designed for an audience that may not actually like motorcycles.

Tarform’s first street legal entrant, the Luna, starts at $24,000, does 0-60 mph in 3.8 seconds, has a city range of 120 miles, top-speed of 120 mph, and charges to 80% in 50 minutes—according to company specs.

The model was hatched out of the company’s mission to meld aesthetic design and craftsmanship to environmental sustainability in two-wheeled electric vehicles.

To that end, the Luna incorporates a number of unique, eco-design features. The bodywork is made from a flax seed weave and the overall motorcycle engineering avoids use of plastics. The Luna’s seat upholstery is made out of biodegradable vegan leather. Tarform is also testing methods to avoid paints and primers on its motorcycles, instead using a mono-material infused with algae and iron based metallic pigments.

The company was founded by Swede Taras Kravtchouk—an industrial design specialist, former startup head, and passionate motorcyclist. The Luna launch follows the debut of two concept e-motos in 2018.

Image Credits: Jake Bright

On Tarform’s target market, he explained the startup hopes to attract those who may be turned off by the very things that have turned people on to motorcycling over the last 50 years — namely gas, chrome, noise, and fumes.

“It’s more for people who want a custom bike and the techies: people who wanted to have a motorcycle but didn’t want to be associated with the whole stigmatized motorcycle lifestyle,” Kravtchouk told TechCrunch.

Tarform enters the EV arena with competition from several e-moto startups — and on OEM — that are attempting to convert gas riders to electric and attract a younger generation to motorcycling.

One of the leaders is California company Zero Motorcycles, with 200 dealers worldwide. Zero introduced a its $19,000 SR/F in 2019, with a 161-mile city range, one-hour charge capability and a top speed of 124 mph. Italy’s Energica is expanding distribution of its high-performance e-motos in the U.S.

In 2020, Harley Davidson became the first of the big gas manufacturers to offer a street-legal e-motorcycle for sale in the U.S., the $29,000 LiveWire.

And Canadian startup Damon Motors debuted its 200 mph, $24,000 Hypersport this year, which offers proprietary safety and ergonomics tech for adjustable riding positions and blind-spot detection.

On how Tarform plans to compete with these e-motorcycle players, Kravtchouk explained that’s not the company’s priority. “We’re not even close in production to Zero or the other big guys, but that’s not our intention. Think of the [Luna] as a custom production bike,” he said.

“We did not set out to build a bike that is fastest or has the longest range,” Kravtchouk added. “We set out to build a bike that completely revises the manufacturing and supply chain of e-motorcycles in a way where we ethically source our materials and create an ethical supply-chain.”

For this mission, Tarform has obtained funding from several family offices and angel investors, including LA based M13. The Brooklyn based e-motorcycle company is taking pre-orders on its new Luna and pursuing a Series-A funding round for 2021, according to CEO Taras Kravtchouk.

Founded by an Impossible Foods, and Google data scientist, Climax Foods raises $7.5 million to tackle the cheesiest market

By Jonathan Shieber

Oliver Zahn began his professional career studying the stars. The founder of Climax Foods, a startup that’s using data science to replace animal proteins with plant-based substitutes, spent years at the University of California at Berkeley with his eyes fixed firmly toward the heavens before taking up with Pat Brown and Impossible Foods as the company’s leading data scientist.

That experience focused Zahn on more terrestrial concerns and undoubtedly led the founder down the path to launching Climax Foods.

Now with $7.5 million in financing from investors including At One Ventures, founded by the GoogleX co-founder Tom Chi, along with Manta Ray Ventures, S2G Ventures, Valor Siren Ventures, Prelude Ventures, ARTIS Ventures, Index Ventures, Luminous Ventures, Canaccord Genuity Group, Carrot Capital and Global Founders Capital, Zahn is ready to take on the future of food.

The pitch to investors is similar to the one that Josh Tetrick made at Just Food (the company formerly known as Hampton Creek). It’s elegant in its simplicity — scan the natural world for proteins that have the same or better characteristics than those that are currently made by animals and make products with them.

By looking at what makes animal products so delicious, the company will find their plant-based analogs and start producing.

As with most things that depend on data science, the taxonomy is the key. So Climax Foods is building machine learning algorithms that will process and cross-reference molecular structures to find the best fit. It’s starting with cheese.

While, the replacing the humble wheel of cheese may not seem like a worthy adversary for an astrophysicist, companies have already raised hundreds of millions to defeat the big dairy industry.

“We are at a pivotal time where industrialization enabled explosive population growth and consumption of animal products. Today, more than 90% of all mammalian animals and more than 70% of all birds on the planet exist for the sole purpose of metabolizing plants and being turned into food,” said Zahn in a statement. “This industry is complex and wasteful, creating as much climate change as all modes of transportation combined, and using more than a third of the earth’s water and usable land. By speeding up food science innovation, Climax Foods is able to convert plants into equally craveable foods without the environmental impact.”

Joining Zahn on this quest to conquer the cheese industrial complex and its milk-made monstrousness are a few seasoned industry veterans including co-founder, Caroline Love, the company’s chief operating officer and former sales and operations executive from JUST foods, and Pavel Aronov, a Stanford-educated chemist who previously worked at the chemicals giant thermo-Fisher.

“Climax Foods is tackling the same opportunity to change the market and the food system, but they are doing it with an entirely novel technological approach. They are using data science to produce a new category of foods that will not merely compete with, but out-compete, animal products in terms of taste, nutritional density, and price,” said Sanjeev Krishnan, one of the largest investors in the plant protein space and Chief Investment Officer of S2G Ventures. “The machine intelligence approach Climax Foods is pioneering is critical for harnessing the vast number of ways raw ingredients and natural processes can be used to create the ultimate digital recipes.”

Krishnan would know. He’s an investor in Beyond Meat, the most successful public offering of a plant-based protein replacement company.

Microsoft, Amazon back a SoCal company making microchips specifically for voice-based apps

By Jonathan Shieber

Microsoft’s venture capital fund, M12 Ventures, has led a slew of strategic corporate investors backing a new chip developer out of Southern California called Syntiant, which makes semiconductors for voice recognition and speech-based applications.

“We started out to build a new type of processor for machine learning, and voice is our first application,” says Syntiant chief executive Kurt Busch. “We decided to build a chip for always-on battery-powered devices.”

Those chips need a different kind of processor than traditional chipsets, says Busch. Traditional compute is about logic, and deep learning is about memory access; traditional microchip designs also don’t perform as well when it comes to parallel processing of information.

Syntiant claims that its chips are two orders of magnitude more efficient, thanks to its data flow architecture that was built for deep learning, according to Busch.

It’s that efficiency that attracted investors, including M12, Microsoft Corp.’s venture fund; the Amazon Alexa Fund; Applied Ventures, the investment arm of Applied Materials; Intel Capital; Motorola Solutions Venture Capital; and Robert Bosch Venture Capital.

These investment firms represent some of the technology industry’s top chip makers and software developers, and they’re pooling their resources to support Syntiant’s Irvine, California-based operations.

smart speakers

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

“Syntiant aligns perfectly with our mission to support companies that fuel voice technology innovation,” said Paul Bernard, director of the Alexa Fund at Amazon. “Its technology has enormous potential to drive continued adoption of voice services like Alexa, especially in mobile scenarios that require devices to balance low power with continuous, high-accuracy voice recognition. We look forward to working with Syntiant to extend its speech technology to new devices and environments.” 

Syntiant’s first device measures 1.4 by 1.8 millimeters and draws 140 microwatts of power. In some applications, Syntiant’s chips can run for a year on a single coin cell.

“Syntiant’s neural network technology and its memory-centric architecture fits well with Applied Materials’ core expertise in materials engineering as we enable radical leaps in device performance and novel materials-enabled memory technologies,” said Michael Stewart, principal at Applied Ventures, the venture capital arm of Applied Materials, Inc. “Syntiant’s ultra-low-power neural decision processors have the potential to create growth in the chip marketplace and provide an effective solution for today’s demanding voice and video applications.” 

So far, 80 customers are working with Syntiant to integrate the company’s chips into their products. There are a few dozen companies in the design stage and the company has already notched design wins for products ranging from cell phones and smart speakers to remote controls, hearing aids, laptops and monitors. Already the company has shipped its first million units.  

“We expect to scale that by 10x by the end of this year,” says Busch. 

Syntiant’s chipsets are designed specifically to handle wakes and commands, which means that users can add voice recognition features and commands unique to their particular voice, Busch says.

Initially backed by venture firms including Atlantic Bridge, Miramar and Alpha Edison, Syntiant raised its first round of funding in October 2017. The company has raised a total of $65 million to date, according to Busch.

“Syntiant’s architecture is well-suited for the computational patterns and inherent parallelism of deep neural networks,” said Samir Kumar, an investor with M12 and new director on the Syntiant board. “We see great potential in its ability to enable breakthroughs in power performance for AI processing in IoT [Internet of things].” 

 

Autonomous vehicle reporting data is driving AV innovation right off the road

By Walter Thompson
Grace Strickland Contributor
Grace Strickland is an attorney with more than six years of experience representing technology clients in cutting-edge industries, including autonomous transportation.
John McNelis Contributor
John McNelis is an intellectual property partner and leader of the autonomous transportation and shared mobility practice at Fenwick & West; he also chairs the California Technology Council’s Autonomous Transportation Initiative.

At the end of every calendar year, the complaints from autonomous vehicle companies start piling up. This annual tradition is the result of a requirement by the California Department of Motor Vehicles that AV companies deliver “disengagement reports” by January 1 of each year showing the number of times an AV operator had to disengage the vehicle’s autonomous driving function while testing the vehicle.

However, all disengagement reports have one thing in common: their usefulness is ubiquitously criticized by those who have to submit them. The CEO and founder of a San Francisco-based self-driving car company publicly stated that disengagement reporting is “woefully inadequate … to give a meaningful signal about whether an AV is ready for commercial deployment.” The CEO of a self-driving technology startup called the metrics “misguided.” Waymo stated in a tweet that the metric “does not provide relevant insights” into its self-driving technology or “distinguish its performance from others in the self-driving space.”

1/7 We appreciate what the California DMV was trying to do when creating this requirement, but the disengagement metric does not provide relevant insights into the capabilities of the Waymo Driver or distinguish its performance from others in the self-driving space.

— Waymo (@Waymo) February 26, 2020

Why do AV companies object so strongly to California’s disengagement reports? They argue the metric is misleading based on lack of context due to the AV companies’ varied testing strategies. I would argue that a lack of guidance regarding the language used to describe the disengagements also makes the data misleading. Furthermore, the metric incentivizes testing in less difficult circumstances and favors real-world testing over more insightful virtual testing.

Understanding California reporting metrics

To test an autonomous vehicle on public roads in California, an AV company must obtain an AV Testing Permit. As of June 22, 2020, there were 66 Autonomous Vehicle Testing Permit holders in California and 36 of those companies reported autonomous vehicle testing in California in 2019. Only five of those companies have permits to transport passengers.

To operate on California public roads, each permitted company must report any collision that results in property damage, bodily injury, or death within 10 days of the incident.

There have been 24 autonomous vehicle collision reports in 2020 thus far. However, though the majority of those incidents occurred in autonomous mode, accidents were almost exclusively the result of the autonomous vehicle being rear-ended. In California, rear-end collisions are almost always deemed the fault of the rear-ending driver.

The usefulness of collision data is evident — consumers and regulators are most concerned with the safety of autonomous vehicles for pedestrians and passengers. If an AV company reports even one accident resulting in substantial damage to the vehicle or harm to a pedestrian or passenger while the vehicle operates in autonomous mode, the implications and repercussions for the company (and potentially the entire AV industry) are substantial.

However, the usefulness of disengagement reporting data is much more questionable. The California DMV requires AV operators to report the number and details of disengagements while testing on California public roads by January 1 of each year. The DMV defines this as “how often their vehicles disengaged from autonomous mode during tests (whether because of technical failure or situations requiring the test driver/operator to take manual control of the vehicle to operate safely).”

Operators must also track how often their vehicles disengaged from autonomous mode, and whether that disengagement was the result of software malfunction, human error, or at the option of the vehicle operator.

AV companies have kept a tight lid on measurable metrics, often only sharing limited footage of demonstrations performed under controlled settings and very little data, if any. Some companies have shared the occasional “annual safety report,” which reads more like a promotional deck than a source of data on AV performance. Furthermore, there are almost no reporting requirements for companies doing public testing in any other state. California’s disengagement reports are the exception.

This AV information desert means that disengagement reporting in California has often been treated as our only source of information on AVs. The public is forced to judge AV readiness and relative performance based on this disengagement data, which is incomplete at best and misleading at worst.

Disengagement reporting data offers no context

Most AV companies claim that disengagement reporting data is a poor metric for judging advancement in the AV industry due to a lack of context for the numbers: knowing where those miles were driven and the purpose of those trips is essential to understanding the data in disengagement reports.

Some in the AV industry have complained that miles driven in sparsely populated areas with arid climates and few intersections are miles dissimilar from miles driven in a city like San Francisco, Pittsburgh, or Atlanta. As a result, the number of disengagements reported by companies that test in the former versus the latter geography are incomparable.

It’s also important to understand that disengagement reporting requirements influence AV companies’ decisions on where and how to test. A test that requires substantial disengagements, even while safe, would be discouraged, as it would make the company look less ready for commercial deployment than its competitors. In reality, such testing may result in the most commercially ready vehicle. Indeed, some in the AV industry have accused competitors of manipulating disengagement reporting metrics by easing the difficulty of miles driven over time to look like real progress.

Furthermore, while data can look particularly good when manipulated by easy drives and clear roads, data can look particularly bad when it’s being used strategically to improve AV software.

Let’s consider an example provided by Jack Stewart, a reporter for NPR’s Marketplace covering transportation:

“Say a company rolls out a brand-new build of their software, and they’re testing that in California because it’s near their headquarters. That software could be extra buggy at the beginning, and you could see a bunch of disengagements, but that same company could be running a commercial service somewhere like Arizona, where they don’t have to collect these reports.

That service could be running super smoothly. You don’t really get a picture of a company’s overall performance just by looking at this one really tight little metric. It was a nice idea of California some years ago to start collecting some information, but it’s not really doing what it was originally intended to do nowadays.”

Disengagement reports lack prescriptive language

The disengagement reports are also misleading due to a lack of guidance and uniformity in the language used to describe the disengagements. For example, while AV companies used a variety of language, “perception discrepancies” was the most common term used to describe the reason for a disengagement — however, it’s not clear that the term “perception discrepancies” has a set meaning.

Several operators used the phrase “perception discrepancy” to describe a failure to detect an object correctly. Valeo North America described a similar error as “false detection of object.” Toyota Research Institute almost exclusively described their disengagements vaguely as “Safety Driver proactive disengagement,” the meaning of which is “any kind of disengagement.” Whereas, Pony.ai described each instance of disengagement with particularity.

Many other operators reported disengagements that were “planned testing disengagements” or that were described with such insufficient particularity as to be virtually meaningless.

For example, “planned disengagements” could mean the testing of intentionally created malfunctions, or it could simply mean the software is so nascent and unsophisticated that the company expected the disengagement. Similarly, “perception discrepancy” could mean anything from precautionary disengagements to disengagements due to extremely hazardous software malfunctions. “Perception discrepancy,” “planned disengagement” or any number of other vague descriptions of disengagements make comparisons across AV operators virtually impossible.

So, for example, while it appears that a San Francisco-based AV company’s disengagements were exclusively precautionary, the lack of guidance on how to describe disengagements and the many vague descriptions provided by AV companies have cast a shadow over disengagement descriptions, calling them all into question.

Regulations discourage virtual testing

Today, the software of AV companies is the real product. The hardware and physical components — lidar, sensors, etc. — of AV vehicles have become so uniform, they’re practically off-the-shelf. The real component that is being tested is software. It’s well known that software bugs are best found by running the software as often as possible; road testing simply can’t reach the sheer numbers necessary to find all the bugs. What can reach those numbers is virtual testing.

However, the regulations discourage virtual testing as the lower reported road miles would seem to imply that a company is not road-ready.

Jack Stewart of NPR’s Marketplace expressed a similar point of view:

“There are things that can be relatively bought off the shelf and, more so these days, there are just a few companies that you can go to and pick up the hardware that you need. It’s the software, and it’s how many miles that software has driven both in simulation and on the real roads without any incident.”

So, where can we find the real data we need to compare AV companies? One company runs over 30,000 instances daily through its end-to-end, three-dimensional simulation environment. Another company runs millions of off-road tests a day through its internal simulation tool, running driving models that include scenarios that it can’t test on roads involving pedestrians, lane merging, and parked cars. Waymo drives 20 million miles a day in its Carcraft simulation platform — the equivalent of over 100 years of real-world driving on public roads.

One CEO estimated that a single virtual mile can be just as insightful as 1,000 miles collected on the open road.

Jonathan Karmel, Waymo’s product lead for simulation and automation, similarly explained that Carcraft provides “the most interesting miles and useful information.”

Where we go from here

Clearly there are issues with disengagement reports — both in relying on the data therein and in the negative incentives they create for AV companies. However, there are voluntary steps that the AV industry can take to combat some of these issues:

  1. Prioritize and invest in virtual testing. Developing and operating a robust system of virtual testing may present a high expense to AV companies, but it also presents the opportunity to dramatically shorten the pathway to commercial deployment through the ability to test more complex, higher risk, and higher number scenarios.
  2. Share data from virtual testing. Voluntary disclosure of virtual testing data will reduce reliance on disengagement reports by the public. Commercial readiness will be pointless unless AV companies have provided the public with reliable data on AV readiness for a sustained period.
  3. Seek the greatest value from on-road miles. AV companies should continue using on-road testing in California, but they should use those miles to fill in the gaps from virtual testing. They should seek the greatest value possible out of those slower miles, accept the higher percentage of disengagements they will be required to report, and when reporting on those miles, describe their context in particularity.

With these steps, AV companies can lessen the pain of California’s disengagement reporting data and advance more quickly to an AV-ready future.

Rocket launch startup Astra readies for orbital test flight as early as Sunday

By Darrell Etherington

Rocket launch startup Astra is readying for its first orbital flight test, set to take place either this weekend or next week, weather permitting. The company will launch its ‘Rocket 3.1’ from Kodiak, Alaska – and while these are technically classified as orbital test flights, the company was quick to caution journalists on a press call on Thursday that it doesn’t necessarily believe each the three initial launches it has planned will make it all the way to orbit proper.

“We don’t intend to get a hole-in-one here,” said Kemp. “It’s a par three course. We intend to really accomplish enough to ensure that we’re able to get to [orbital] flight after three flights, and for us, that means a nominal first stage burn, and getting that upper stage to separate successfully. After that, pretty much everything that we learn is additional upside, and will be just delighted if that upper stage lights and we’ll be delighted if the upper stage teaches us something so that so that our next flight can even be more successful.”

Astra’s approach to building and launching rockets differs somewhat from its competitors. The startup only incorporated three years ago, and it’s building its rockets in Alameda, California – not far from Oakland. The Rocket 3.1 is a roughly 40-foot launch vehicle that carries a small payload, roughly equivalent to one of the small sats that make up the large constellations currently being launched for operation in low Earth orbit by a number of companies (for reference, SpaceX launches 60 of these on each of its Starlink missions).

When I spoke to Kemp ahead of their original attempt to win a DARPA launch challenge (since ended with the prize unclaimed), he stressed that they’re looking to build in volume at low cost, with the expectation of a higher tolerable margin for failure than other new space launch companies like SpaceX and Rocket Lab.

“Rather than trying to spend many years doing it first time, we’re iterating towards orbit,” Kemp said during Thursday’s conference about their debut attempt next week.

This is a do-over after the original planned attempt which suffered an anomaly that led in a total loss of the vehicle. That was a ‘Rocket 3.0’ model, and the company has upgraded the design and worked out a number of issues, including the one that led to that failure, with the ensuing time. The gap between now and that attempt at the end of March includes delays resulting from COVID-19, though Astra was eventually declared one of very few companies still allowed to maintain a staffed office since it’s considered important to national security.

These three initial test flights won’t carry any payload, in part because Astra fully expects to lose at least the first vehicle. But Astra’s model actually allows for some operational failures in exchange for economics that allow much less expensive individual launch costs than are currently possible with either SpaceX or Rocket Lab’s rideshare missions as options for small satellite operators.

The first Astra test launch is currently targeting sometime between a window that spans August 2 to August 7, between the hours of 7 PM and 9 PM PDT (6 and 8 PM local time in Kodiak) . So far, weather isn’t looking great for Sunda, but the company notes the weather shifts quickly and plans to keep a close watch and adapt accordingly.

Humana partners with Heal and invests $100 million in the company’s doctor-on-demand service

By Jonathan Shieber

“The doctor’s office is dead.”

That’s the way Nick Desai, the co-founder and chief executive of the Los Angeles-based startup Heal describes the future of traditional healthcare delivery.

While Desai’s bluster may be wishful thinking, the doctor’s office is certainly changing, and that’s thanks in part to companies like Heal, which offer in-home and telemedical consultations — and health insurance providers like Humana that are backing them.

The two companies have announced a new partnership that will see Humana pushing Heal’s in-home and virtual care delivery services to the patients it covers and committing $100 million to spur the Los Angeles-based startup’s growth.

“Humana has a more strategic view of home-based care,” said Desai. “We want all payers to be this strategic. Most insurance partners offer Heal now but we want them to view it more strategically.”

For Desai, the home is the best place to get care because doctors can see the environment that may influence (and in some cases complicate or worsen) a patient’s condition. Heal, Desai says, also works with the digital technologies to provide more remote and persistent patient monitoring, so that doctors can have a better sense of a patient’s health over time, rather than at an acute moment of care.

“You want to talk to the doctor and get continuity of care,” said Desai. “We think we are…  an accelerant for the adoption of those services.”

Things like iPhone-based EKG machines, remote diagnostics to determine diabetic retinopathy, digital hubs to provide remote monitoring of body mass and movement are all hardware offerings within Heal’s panoply of care and diagnostic solutions. “We want to be able to gather more and more of those diagnostics remotely,” Desai said. “Anything that makes care more accurate, more data driven, more timely we want to use and ask our patients to utilize so that they can get better care, more quickly and more affordably.”

The new financing from Humana will go to support Heal’s geographic expansion, product development, and sales and marketing, Desai said. Already, the company has expanded into new treatment areas, including teletherapy for mental health.

Discussion between Heal and the Louisville-based Humana began back in December and the two businesses only inked the final terms of their deal last week.

Heal telemedicine, telepsychology (CA only), and digital monitoring services are currently available in New York, New Jersey, Washington, California, Georgia, Virginia, Maryland, and Washington D.C. To date, the company has linked patients with over 200,000 home visits from doctors since its launch in 2015.

Under the terms of the agreement with Humana, will expand to geographies in Chicago, Charlotte and Houston as part of Humana’s “Bold Goal” program focusing on addressing and creating healthcare services that address social determinants and social needs for its population of insured patients.

“The partnership with Heal is part of Humana’s efforts to build a broader set of offerings across the spectrum of home based care, with high quality, value-based primary care being a key foundational element,” said Susan Diamond, Humana’s Segment President, Home Business, who is joining Heal’s Board of Directors as part of the partnership and investment. “We continue to see high levels of customer satisfaction and improved health outcomes when care is delivered in the home. Our goal is to make the healthcare experience easier, more personalized and caring for the people we serve—and is the hallmark of how Humana delivers human care.”

For Desai, the deal is also an indicator of not just his company’s growth, but the growth of the entire Los Angeles technology ecosystem.

“Heal’s funding just proves that LA is  as much an epicenter of venture backed ecosystem as any in the country including Silicon Valley,” he said. 

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